Story by Adrian Brijbassi
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Rob Klewchuk is standing at the back of the line to enter one of the hottest new restaurants in Calgary. He’ll be here on 1st Avenue for a half an hour before he makes it through the door and to a seat. It’s not a steakhouse or a French bistro or even a tapas-inspired casual eatery. Klewchuk is among the hundreds who have been drawn to Shiki Menya, a ramen noodle house.
Ramen noodles are best known as the processed cup of soup sold in styrofoam containers and sprinkled with dried peas and bits of corn and shallot. They’ve sustained many university students and culinary-challenged bachelors for a couple of decades. But ramen is in and there may be no hipper place in Canada to savour this Japanese food staple than Shiki Menya.
“I’ve heard great things about the restaurant,” says Klewchuk, who lives in the Bridgeland area of Calgary, an emerging neighbourhood across the Bow River from the city’s downtown, and was keen to support a local business. “You can’t find much Japanese in the city, so I’m glad it’s here.”
The restaurant opened at the beginning of April and has sold out of its noodle bowls every day, owner Koki Aihara says. The waits have exceeded two hours, including on one snowy day.
The ramen recipes come from Tsukasa Aihara, Koki’s father and a French-trained chef from Japan. The family owned a restaurant in Banff and then started Shikiji in Bridgeland in 2001. That restaurant has been a favourite in the city for sushi and other Japanese fare, but the Aiharas saw an opportunity for a ramen-only restaurant. Their instincts proved correct, given the huge amount of enthusiasm diners have shown for Shiki Menya, whose Japanese name could be translated to mean “Four Seasons Ramen House.”
Educating Calgary on Ramen’s True Taste
Koki Aihara says the restaurant sells 150 bowls of ramen during weekdays. “We open at 11 am and stay open until we sell out,” he says. The bowls go fast, often in less than four hours.
The food’s popularity isn’t only because it’s rare to find ramen in this part of the country. The dishes are outstanding, too. The noodles are made in house and they’re dropped into a pork broth that takes 16 hours to prepare. Rather than a normal onion, the Aiharas use Tokyo negi to add an authentic flavour. The eggs are organic, the pork is locally raised from Broek Acres farms.
“I think a lot of people still think of the ramen you get at a restaurant as over-glorified Ichiban noodles, but that’s like saying all wine is just fermented grape juice. There’s a deep, deep culture in ramen and people have started to understand that,” Koki Aihara says.
You might think a ramen restaurant would be outfitted with long communal tables and plastic menus with photographs of the dishes. At Shiki Menya, the decor is urban sophisticated, with a warm, open-concept environment. You may hear beats from James Brown as the bustling wait staff swerve from table to table with bowls of what Aihara calls New School Ramen Bowls. The Goma Mazemen is luscious with the broth and pork mixed with a sesame peanut sauce. The Tonkotsu Black bowl features black garlic oil and squid ink garlic. Both bowls cost $14. Classic Ramen Bowls run $12-$14 at the restaurant.
“Part of what we’re doing is educating people about ramen,” Aihara says, “but the best way to do that is to give them something that you know tastes good and that can open their eyes and they’ll want to know more about it.”
MORE ABOUT SHIKI MENYA
Location: 825 1st Avenue NE, Calgary, Alberta (see map below)
Hours: 11 am-close, re: til the ramen bowls sell out, which usually occurs before 4 pm.
Menu Price Range: Noodle bowls range from $12-$14. Small dishes like gyoza ($4 for four pieces) range from $3-$8.
You Must Order: The Goma Mazemen ($14) is rich with flavour thanks to the peanut sauce and the thick noodles.